Green visions, and a few barbs, at mayoral forum

Six mayoral candidates took the stage for TuesdayÂ’s Minneapolis Clean Energy Forum

Six mayoral candidates participated in the Minneapolis Clean Energy Forum at Washburn High School. Credit: Dylan Thomas

TANGLETOWN — Candidates for Minneapolis mayor flashed their green credentials and traded a few pointed comments with their opponents during Tuesday night’s Minneapolis Clean Energy Forum at Washburn High School.

Hosted by the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society and the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, the forum featured six candidates: City Council Member Don Samuels [Ward 5]; Cam Winton, an attorney and who helped build, and then sold, a wind turbine servicing business; Jackie Cherryhomes, a lobbyist and former three-term City Council member; Mark Andrew, founder of the GreenMark green marketing company and a former Hennepin County Board member from 1982–1999; City Council Member Betsy Hodges [Ward 13], who was Andrew’s chief rival at the Minneapolis DFL endorsing convention earlier this month; and Dan Cohen, a former City Council member who currently sits on the city charter and planning commissions. All are DFLers except Winton, a Republican running as an independent, and Cohen, who has previously identified as Republican but is also running as an independent.

There were several dozen people in the audience when the forum began about 15 minutes after its scheduled 6:30 p.m. starting time, leaving the large Washburn auditorium mostly empty. They listened quietly as the candidates responded to questions they’d seen in advance — all except for one sprung by the moderator.

That moderator was former WCCO–TV anchor Don Shelby, who opened the forum by asking the candidates whether they believed a documented rise in global temperatures was human-caused through the “use of fossil fuels and land management.” Shelby asked for a show of hands, and each candidate raised his or her hand.

The first question asked the candidates to describe what a Minneapolis mayor could do to promote solar energy, and the sniping commenced when Winton took his turn with the mic. Offering the “disclaimer” to his response that Xcel Energy is one of his clients, he said other candidates had “not always been as candid” about their business ties.

That could have been a reference to Cherryhomes, who in a previous debate failed to mention her work as a lobbyist for Covanta, the company that operates the downtown garbage burner. When Winton added later that “solar in downtown Minneapolis is not going to be one of my priorities,” he was referencing a plan pitched by Andrew to install solar panels on 150 city buildings.

“The numbers there simply did not add up,” Winton said.

That didn’t phase Andrew, who reiterated his intention to install solar panels on city, park and school buildings to “set an example” for Minneapolis businesses and residents. Describing his green accomplishments on the county board, he said was the “creator” of the Midtown Greenway transit corridor, a version of history that glosses over the contributions of citizen advocates, and that he “created” the city’s recycling program.

Those sweeping claims, among several by Andrew that night, sometimes drew skeptical looks from his opponents.

“I am the only person up here with any pedigree on environmental leadership whatsoever,” Andrew said. Immediately after noticing Winton’s incredulous look, he added: “With the exception of Cam.”

Hodges said she would lead with a “long-term vision and plan” for adding solar to the city’s energy mix and would lobby to have Xcel Energy supply more of its energy from renewable sources. She said the city should take the lead in improving buildings’ energy efficiency, but added to Winton’s doubts about Andrew’s solar plan.

“It’s a great goal to have solar on city buildings, but the real goal is to have substance on that, make sure the numbers are good,” she said.

Both Samuels and Cherryhomes, current and former representatives of the North Side, respectively, emphasized the need to help low-income communities overcome the cost and other hurdles of starting solar programs. Cherryhomes said she’d already talked to two North Side property owners about starting solar gardens, small solar energy facilities that could serve multiple nearby property owners.

Cohen emphasized the need for a citizen-led move to solar, but didn’t describe any specific actions he would take as mayor.

Asked next how they would use existing programs to advance city goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while growing green jobs for the local economy, Winton, Cherryhomes, Andrew and Hodges all pointed specifically to Minnesota PACE [Property Assessed Clean Energy], a financing tool through which local governments loan building owners money for energy upgrades, then take repayment through future property taxes.

Samuels said low-income home and business owners who would benefit most from lower energy bills are often unable to afford efficiency upgrades, describing the situation as a “green gap” between the rich and poor. He pointed to the Green Homes North initiative, an effort to building 100 energy efficient homes on the North Side, as an example of how the city could aid low-income communities.

On the same day the City Council voted to approve a funding plan for streetcars that would direct $60 million in property taxes to the rail-based transit system, the candidates next responded to a question about the role of transit in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They generally agreed that a robust, multi-modal transit system paired with increasingly dense development was the best approach.

Hodges said streetcars have the additional benefit of encouraging investment.

“Investors prefer rail to tires, and so do riders, so I’ve never dismissed modern streetcars with Republican talking points about being ‘cute’ and ‘touristy’ and [saying] we could do it better other ways,” she said in a comment seemingly aimed at Winton, a streetcar critic.

Winton’s chief complaint about streetcars is their expense: $40 million per mile versus the $2 million per mile he said it would cost to make rider-friendly improvements to existing bus service, like heated bus stops. He said the streetcar funds could instead pay for “police officers, firefighters [and] road paving for all road users.”

One co-sponsor of the candidate forum was Minneapolis Energy Options, the citizen group that successfully lobbied the city to study the creation of municipal gas and electric utilities before new contracts are negotiated with Xcel Energy and Centerpoint Energy in the next two years. This fall, a ballot question will ask voters if the city should pursue municipalization.

Asked their position on the ballot initiative, only Cohen answered with a flat, “No,” citing the billions it could cost to buy up the utilities’ existing infrastructure. The rest said they supported raising the question of municipalization, if only to take a stronger bargaining position with Xcel and Centerpoint, and there was general agreement that the terms of the contracts should be much shorter than the current 20 years.

The next question touched on a controversial but generally under-the-radar topic in the mayor’s race: the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, or HERC. Candidates were asked to describe their positions on the goal of making Minneapolis a “zero-waste city” and what role the HERC, a garbage burner located downtown, would have in achieving that goal.

While all the candidates expressed general support of the zero-waste goal, the positions on HERC were more nuanced. Hodges, Andrew and Winton clearly stated they opposed increasing burning at the HERC. Both Samuels and Cherryhomes shared the other candidate’s concerns about potentially toxic HERC emissions, but didn’t say if they’d oppose more burning. Cohen acknowledged he was “not terribly well-schooled on this particular question.”

Andrew went further in his response, describing the collaboration, “big thinking” and action it would take to reduce city waste, and then turned to criticizing the current City Council in a manner he described as a “gentle prod.”

“These are people who have done nothing on this issue while they have been in office,” Andrew said. “The city’s recycling program has gone backwards.”

While recycling rates haven’t risen in Minneapolis in recent years, county data indicates they’ve held steady at about 18 percent since at least 2005. That’s way off the pace needed to reach the county’s goal of 45 percent for Minneapolis by 2015. The city launched single-sort recycling last year in an effort to boost those rates, a fact Hodges pointed out before Andrew’s statement.

The final question was the only one candidates didn’t see in advance, and for it Shelby chose a pet topic: green construction. Noting “energy inefficient housing stock wastes energy,” the man who last year made his LEED-certified farmhouse a stop on the Parade of Homes tour asked what a mayor could do to improve the energy efficiency of the city’s housing stock.

Hodges, Andrew and Cohen offered similar answers, prescribing a mix of financial carrots and regulatory sticks, while Winton said the private sector should be invited to invest in improvements and profit from the efficiencies. He described the Chicago Infrastructure Trust established under the leadership of Mayor Rahm Emanuel as an example of public-private partnership Minneapolis could emulate.

Samuels and Cherryhomes both reflected on their experiences on the North Side, where quick and dirty rehabs of existing homes often neglect efficiency, leaving renters paying higher utility bills. They both called for higher efficiency standards on rehab properties.

“We have one of the greatest cities with the greatest gaps,” Samuels said in his closing statement. “The tragedy would be if we become one of the greenest cities with the greatest gaps.”

(To watch a video of the debate by The Uptake, click here.) 

CORRECTION: This story originally misquoted Winton, who said a streetcar would cost $40 million per mile, not $60 million.